Why ignoring Myanmar could hurt India

It is vital for our Act East policy as we cannot connect with ASEAN by land except through it.

 |  5-minute read |   12-09-2017
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Our relations with Myanmar are important for multiple reasons. Curiously, despite being a direct neighbour, it does not impinge on our national consciousness in the same way as our other neighbours do. Actually, Myanmar deserves equal attention, if not more, for weighty national security reasons. It abuts our northeastern states whose full integration into the national mainstream has been difficult because of geography and local insurgencies. The economic development of this region has suffered in consequence.

Insurgents

Today, with the Sheikh Hasina government rooting out anti-Indian insurgents (ULFA) from its soil and open to granting India transit rights to the Northeast, the political and security environment as a whole has improved for us. This has made our ties with Myanmar even more important for achieving our twin objectives of integrating and economically developing our northeastern states.

If China’s increasing grip over Pakistan causes us great concern, so must the geopolitical gains China has made in Myanmar. If through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) China is accessing the Arabian Sea, it is gaining access to the Bay of Bengal through the oil and gas pipelines and other connectivity projects in Myanmar.

In both cases, we are being outflanked in the Indian Ocean. If China is the largest investor in Pakistan today, it is the largest investor in Myanmar with over $18.5 billion of investment compared to India’s $2 billion. Both Pakistan and Myanmar support China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which India opposes. If China’s port building activity in Sri Lanka as part of its so-called maritime silk route project makes us uneasy, acquiring port facilities in Myanmar is very much a part of China’s grand design to expand its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean.

However, unlike in the case of a hostile Pakistan, we have a friendly government in Myanmar that would favour a balancing of China’s influence in view of rising domestic resistance to the costs of Beijing’s enveloping embrace.

Myanmar is vital for our Act East policy as we cannot connect with ASEAN by land except through it. If we want to balance China's BRI in Asia, we have to expedite the construction of the much delayed 1,400km-long India-Myanmar-Thailand tri-lateral highway as well as the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) that will serve to connect landlocked Mizoram to the Bay of Bengal. In general, improved infrastructure in the region will facilitate the economic development of the Northeast, where a continuing feeling of neglect can damage our national security. Our geopolitical stakes in Myanmar are, therefore, high both bilaterally and in the context of China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia.

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Beleaguered

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar from September 5 to 7 on his way back from the BRICS summit in China was timely and produced extra gains as it took place when Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi have attracted international opprobrium on the Rohingya issue. In their joint press conference, Modi gave comfort to the beleaguered Myanmar leader by defining the problem as one of “extremist violence” in Rakhine, an aspect glossed over by Islamic countries and humanitarian organisations, both of which become indignant selectively as our own experience has often shown.

The joint statement frames the issue more widely by describing the situation in the Rakhine state as having both a developmental and a security dimension, with India willing to contribute constructively to a medium-term solution by participating in the state’s development through infrastructure and socio-economic projects.

India is not insensitive to the humanitarian dimension of the Rohingya exodus, but talking about it would prevent us from deporting the 40,000 that have entered India illegally through Bangladesh (which shows that our borders with it remain porous despite the 20 million plus illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India, a problem that requires controlling) and have by the thousands settled down in Jammu & Kashmir where Muslims rally against any settlement of Hindu refugees as a conspiracy to change the demographic balance in the state. This disturbing lack of internal controls over refugee movements requires serious attention.

Terrorism

On terrorism, the joint statement fully meets our requirements, to Pakistan’s undoubted vexation. It seeks strong measures against states that “provide sanctuary to terrorists... and falsely extols their virtue”, condemns the “recent barbaric terror attacks during the Amarnath Yatra in India as also various acts of terror perpetrated by terrorists from across the borders” and opposes the “glorification of terrorists as martyrs”.

Other gains consolidated by Modi’s visit are Myanmar’s commitment to not allow “any insurgent group to utilise Myanmar’s soil to undertake hostile acts against the Indian government”, an agreement to foster “deeper defence cooperation”, promote "closer bilateral cooperation in maritime security” (for which a MoU was signed during the visit) and “stand by each other as good and trustworthy neighbours in the years ahead”.

The joint statement notes the substantial progress on the KMTTP with the completion of works on the Sittwe Port as well as on reconstruction of bridges on some sectors of the Trilateral Highway. With increased energy cooperation in view, leading Indian oil and gas companies are in the process of opening their offices in Myanmar. The first consignment of the high-speed diesel from an Indian refinery reached Myanmar on September 4, 2017. However, the issue of Indian restrictions on the import of pulses from Myanmar, a sensitive issue for that nation, has not been resolved.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

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Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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